Inclusive language – it’s more than words
READ OUR ‘DIVERSITY IN DICTION’ GUIDE TO NON-DISCRIMINATORY LANGUAGE AS A DRIVER OF CULTURE CHANGE
December 3, 2020
Used genuinely and honestly, inclusive language grows out of inclusive thought.
Businesses that think and act inclusively know almost instinctively how to promote equality and diversity in the workplace. They go beyond simply respecting people’s differences.
More: such businesses know that diversity powers innovation. Teams can nurture many – sometimes unexpected – perspectives in an environment where all ideas can be heard, considered and embraced without prejudice.
Your organisation can transform its culture from the inside by adopting values of equality and diversity and being certain they’re reflected in the language that everyone uses every day.
You will take your customers, suppliers and investors with you – not by paying lip-service to the latest buzzwords, but by showing you understand and acknowledge their diversity.
And don’t forget corporate reputation. Using inclusive language can reduce the risk of putting an embarrassing – and costly – foot wrong.
Recognising the power of words
Words have power. They can make us laugh or cry. They can inspire or frighten us. They can persuade us to buy things we never knew we wanted or vote for a candidate we had never considered. Words critically influence the way we see the world – and the way we see and interact with the people in it.
In practice that means avoiding words and phrases that offend or exclude – using instead language that is genuinely inclusive. Hence this guide. It considers language relating to race (part one), disability, age and gender (part two)*.
It can be difficult to develop new habits of speech and writing, but by doing so, businesses will see real benefits.
Inclusive language: race, colour and ethnicity terms
Racial discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of people on the grounds of race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin. Racially discriminatory behaviour (and language) reinforces prejudice. It also undermines the confidence of a workforce, particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, in any organisation’s commitment to create an inclusive work environment and to provide an appropriate and professional service.
Language with negative racial connotations can help reinforce and perpetuate inaccurate racial stereotypes.
Terms covering ethnicity
- Grouping people by ethnic background may often not be useful and easily lead to misunderstanding. Making assumptions about an individual’s characteristics or needs on the basis of their ethnic and cultural background is problematic; as well as fostering stereotyping, such assumptions can lead to a failure to address issues appropriately and effectively.
- The term ‘ethnic minority’ emphasises ethnicity as the principal factor. Since there is a tendency to conflate ‘ethnic’ with not-white, the term could be perceived as implying the issue is with people being not-white, i.e. that non-white people are the issue.
- The term ‘minority ethnic’ is preferable as it highlights the fact that everyone has an ethnicity, and the issues being referred to relate to minority groups (and, potentially, the discrimination they face).
- Used in isolation to refer either to individuals or to sections of the community, ‘ethnic’ or ‘ethnics’ can be offensive.
- When it’s necessary to refer to someone’s race or ethnicity and you are uncertain about the terms to use, ask them how they wish to be described.
Correct terms for black people
- The term ‘black’ is often used in a political sense to include all people who share a common experience of discrimination because of their race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin. Others take ‘black’ more literally to mean someone with very dark skin. Some people of Asian background find the term offensive when applied to them, while other people will not wish to be called ‘black’ because of its political connotations.
- In most cases there is no objection to ‘black’ being used as an adjective: ‘a black person’ or ‘the black community’. It should never be used as a noun, as in ‘blacks’ or ‘there’s another black’.
West Indian, Afro-Caribbean, African Caribbean, African people
- The term ‘West Indian’ was historically used in the UK as an all-encompassing phrase to describe first-generation settlers from the Caribbean. In most circumstances today (outside, say, international cricket), it is inappropriate and may be considered offensive.
- Despite still being in fairly common use, the term ‘Afro-Caribbean’ is generally now deemed unacceptable. Avoid it.
- The terms ‘African-Caribbean’ and ‘African’ cover vast geographical origins and it’s better to refer to the specific country from which someone comes if you know it. Otherwise, ‘black’ remains a more appropriate generic term.
- In the UK, it is generally appropriate to use ‘Asian’ or ‘British Asian’.
- However, Asia is a vast continent incorporating many countries, and people of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, for example, may prefer to be referred to as such rather than by the broad term ‘Asian’.
- Similarly, ‘South East Asian’ may be more appropriate to describe Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese people, all of whom may also prefer to be identified separately.
People with mixed ethnicity, mixed race, dual/mixed parentage/heritage/ancestry
- People identifying as being of mixed origin are the fastest-growing demographic in the UK population.
- When describing or recording ethnicity, ‘mixed ethnicity’, ‘mixed ethnic group’ or ‘mixed ethnic origin’ are the most commonly used. However, ‘bi-racial’, ‘multi-racial’, ‘mixed race’ and ‘dual/mixed parentage/heritage/ancestry’ have become much more commonly accepted.
- Some people may prefer to identify themselves as ‘black’ or ‘white’ or according to their cultural or ethnic origins, rather than as some sort of mixture.
Gypsies and Travellers
- Of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Travellers in the UK, by far the largest group are Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers, who have been travelling for centuries in Britain as a distinct social group.
- Each is recognised in law as a separate racial group and it is offensive to refer to Gypsies, Travellers or Roma as ‘Gippos’, ‘tinkers’ or ‘pikies’.
Non-visible minority ethnic groups
- It is inappropriate to refer to anyone who is Irish as ‘Paddy’ or ‘Mick’, or to use ‘Taff’ for Welsh or ‘Jock’ for people from Scotland.
- ‘Yids’ is an unacceptable term to describe Jewish people, while terms such as ‘Polacks’, ‘Spicks’, ‘Dagos’, ‘Argies’, ‘Krauts’ and ‘Wops’ are also unacceptable.
Immigrants and migrants
- The term ‘immigrants’ is commonly applied to people from minority ethnic backgrounds, including those who have been long settled in the UK and born here. The term can therefore be misleading and is all too often used pejoratively. It should be avoided.
- The term ‘migrant worker’ is enshrined in European law to denote anyone working in a country other than their country of origin. However, beware of the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘economic migrant’, which are often used in a derogatory (and inaccurate) manner to describe refugees and asylum seekers.
Coloured, people of colour, BIPOC
- ‘Coloured’ was commonly used in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as it was considered (and still is by some older people) less offensive than ‘black’. Nevertheless, the term has a troubled legacy – not least in relation to apartheid-era South Africa – and should not be used.
- In the US, ‘people of color’ and, more recently, ‘BIPOC’ (black, indigenous and people of color) are political terms commonly adopted by those with a shared experience of racial discrimination. In recent years, the term ‘people of colour’ has become more prevalent in the UK.
- Referring to ‘non-whites’ classifies people only by their exclusion from the ‘white’ group and should be avoided.
- It is better to refer to the specific ethnic group if known, or to ‘people from minority ethnic groups’ or ‘people from minority ethnic backgrounds’.
- The following terms have highly racist overtones, are extremely offensive and should not be tolerated under any circumstances: ‘negro’; ‘coon’; ‘wog’; ‘nigger’ (the common use of this term by black rap artists doesn’t mean that it isn’t highly offensive outside this singular context); ‘half-caste’; ‘paki’; ‘chinky’.
Terms carrying connotations
- While not offensive in themselves, many words and phrases carry negative connotations. It is therefore important to avoid terms using ‘black’ to portray negativity but with no direct link to skin colour, such as: ‘black sheep of the family’; ‘blacklist’; ‘black mark’; ‘black look’.
- Equally, certain terms imply a negative image of ‘black’ by reinforcing the positive aspects of ‘white’. For example, in the context of being above suspicion the phrase ‘whiter than white’ is often used. ‘Purer than pure’ or ‘cleaner than clean’ would be better options.
Inclusive language: disability
The language and terminology often used for disability and to describe disabled people communicates a negative message. Instead, our language should convey respect for the rights of disabled people and inspire confidence that needs are understood and will be met in a way that affords independence and dignity.
Everyone is individual and care should be taken when ‘labelling’ or making assumptions about an individual’s abilities or disabilities. We should take care not to assume that everyone from a particular group or with a common medical condition is the same. Some people may not even consider themselves to be disabled – a deaf person using British Sign Language may regard this as a linguistic issue rather than one of disability.
The correct term for disabled people
- The British Council of Disabled People’s Organisations and the Disabled People’s Movement prefer the term ‘disabled people’. This reflects an understanding that functional limitations arising from a disabled person’s impairments do not inevitably restrict their ability to participate fully in society. Rather, environmental factors (such as the structure of a building or an organisation’s practices) can restrict a disabled individual’s ability to participate fully in society.
People with disabilities
- This term has historically been considered positive because it emphasises people with impairments are first and foremost people. However, while it is unlikely to cause actual offence, its use has been rejected by the Disabled People’s Movement in the UK.
- Many disabled people regard ‘handicapped’ as offensive because of its strong historical associations with physical or mental defectiveness, permanent incapacity and dependency.
People with special needs
- In most cases there is generally nothing particularly ‘special’ about disabled people’s needs. We all have different, specific needs – but society has not equipped itself to accommodate everybody’s needs as a matter of course, so alternative provision often has to be made. This phrase may offend as it may be seen as patronising; avoid it.
The disabled, the blind, the deaf, an arthritic, an epileptic, a diabetic, etc
- Using terms like ‘the disabled’ and ‘the blind’ dehumanises people. This identifies them by their physical or medical condition and implies that the condition is the most significant fact about someone.
- If it’s necessary to refer to a physical or medical condition, it is better to say, for example, ‘people with a hearing impairment’ or ‘people with a visual impairment’, ‘a person with epilepsy’ or ‘people who have diabetes’.
- People who use equipment to improve their hearing (e.g. hearing aids or amplifiers) are known as ‘people with hearing loss’.
- People who lose their hearing completely, especially in adult life, are ‘deafened’ or ‘deaf’.
- People born with no hearing and who use British Sign Language are ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘D’. Deaf people are a community in their own right with their own culture. Most do not consider themselves as having a disability (the inability of others to use British Sign Language being the cause of any disablement by society).
- The words ‘dumb’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘mute’, have acquired associations with a lack of intelligence and should be avoided.
- If someone is unable to speak, it is preferable to use the term ‘person with a speech difficulty’ or ‘people with non-verbal communication’ or ‘people who use verbal communication aids’.
- The reasons for avoiding ‘handicapped’ are set out above. Use ‘people with learning difficulties’ instead.
- People can suffer stigma from their experience of emotional and mental health; terms like ‘mentally ill’ only exacerbate this.
- Much better are terms such as ‘people who use mental health services’, ‘someone with experience of mental health issues’ or ‘people who experience emotional/mental distress’.
- Don’t use words such as ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘mental’ and ‘loony’ as they can cause offence.
- The use of originally medical terms has its origins in negative perceptions of disability. Today, they contribute to the negative image of disability prevalent in society, so don’t use them. Be sure to challenge their use on the rare occasions you might come across them. For example: ‘cretin’; ‘spastic’; ‘cripple’; ‘Mongol’.
Terms carrying connotations
- Many words and phrases commonly used in relation to disability – such as ‘confined to a wheelchair’ or ‘wheelchair-bound’ – create a view of disabled people as helpless, dependent and limited. If wheelchairs are restrictive, it is because we live in an environment built for non-users of wheelchairs. An effective and accurate alternative term is ‘wheelchair user’.
- It’s also common for words and phrases to refer to disabling conditions that emphasise suffering, for example: ‘crippled by polio’, ‘afflicted with epilepsy’, ‘suffering from spina bifida’. These emotive terms also identify the individual through their physical condition.
- If you have to refer to a person’s condition at all, it’s far better to use neutral terms such as ‘had’, ‘has’, or ‘with’. For example: ‘she had polio’; ‘he’s a person with epilepsy’; ‘they have spina bifida’.
Inclusive language: age
Media and the arts often portray young people as beautiful, glamorous and capable, or sometimes as rebellious, unreliable and dissolute. Meanwhile, older people may be portrayed as conservative, crotchety, worn out, useless or vulnerable. These stereotypes inevitably affect attitudes and expectations of both young and old.
- The following terms have a long history but should no longer be used if we are to challenge stereotypes of age and ageing: ‘old codger’; ‘old fart’; ‘geriatric’; ‘old biddy’; ‘grandad’ and ‘grandma’ (except where referring to actual family members).
- We should not make assumptions about the value of people based on their age. Where it is necessary to refer to older people, it’s better to use more neutral terms, such as: ‘services for older people’; ‘elderly relatives’; ‘elders’ (this term is often used in BAME communities); ‘older workers’.
- Equally, ‘youth’ or ‘youngster’ when used as a noun have connotations of inexperience, impetuosity and unreliability. If it’s necessary to refer to a person’s younger age, it’s better simply to use the neutral ‘young people’.
Inclusive language: sex & gender*
Sex discrimination is the differential treatment of men or women on the basis of gender. However, most sex discrimination is against women, and this is reflected in a predominance of terminology that excludes or degrades them.
The English language, along with most if not all others, has evolved to reflect that we have (too) long lived very much in a ‘man’s world’. Our laws and official language refer almost exclusively to the male gender and it’s still common to talk about the likes of ‘the man in the street’, ‘the tax man’ and putting things ‘in layman’s terms’.
This approach can make women and their contribution to society seem insignificant or even invisible. But with a little thought and imagination, it’s easy to ensure that the language we use ceases to be so gender specific.
- Use ‘he or she’ and ‘his or her’ when referring to someone unknown or rephrase so that reference to either gender is avoided. It is also becoming more and more common simply to use the plural ‘they’ or ‘their’ in place or he/she/his/hers.
- Many job titles or roles traditionally identified in male terms already have better alternatives not specific to either gender, including: ‘police officer’ ‘chairperson’ ‘headteacher’. The term ‘actor’ is now also used in this spirit – to encompass all genders.
- As the number of women in the workplace has increased, an unfortunate convention has developed that adds ‘woman’ or ‘female’ to the name of a profession – such as ‘female doctor’ or ‘woman judge’. Avoid this strenuously as it implies that the rightful owners of the title are male and that a woman in such a role is somehow an imposter.
- Use of ‘Ms’ by women has become widespread as a title that, like ‘Mr’, doesn’t focus on marriage status. However, some women still prefer to use ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, and that should be respected. (At Hoxby, we use full names or first names, without any title, in emails and handles in Slack. The issue should rarely arise and is a good example to follow.)
Contact Hoxby to learn more
Why Hoxby? As a social enterprise and a Certified B-Corporation, our purpose is to create a happier society through a world of work without bias. Our 1,000-strong community of remote working freelance experts is living proof of how a global diverse workforce can operate together inclusively. The Hoxby Foundation works to eliminate the gap between the number of people from excluded groups who want to work and the number who actually do.
We are committed to diversity and inclusion, and our approach to and use of language are absolutely key to promoting our values.
Curious about the advantages of inclusive language for your business? Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
About this guide
Fruit of the experience and detailed hard work of Yacob Cajee, as well as the contributions of David Roberts and Hoxby Foundation champions including Becky Wong, Anouchka Burton and Clare Fleerackers, plus the encouragement and support of Hoxby Foundation MD Nicola Barrett, this is a document that we hope you will all find the time to read and absorb.
The basis of Hoxby’s guide is_ _Diversity in Diction, Equality in Action – a guide to appropriate language, originally compiled by Yacob Cajee and published 15 years ago in the UK. That guide was subsequently adopted by more than 60 organisations in the UK and Europe, including the Law Society, ACAS, Age Concern, Show Racism The Red Card and various universities.
*There’s fierce debate and lack of consensus within the LGBTQI community about the usefulness of guidance on language around sexual orientation (such as that produced by Stonewall). For now at least, we don’t cover that here.